Amazon Ring

Information in this essay is taken from “Amazon’s doorbell camera Ring is working with police – and controlling what they say” by Kari Paul, The Guardian, Aug 30, 2019.

The science of surveillance enters new territory with Amazon Ring.  It’s the new for-profit private surveillance network.  The size is at the half-million mark across the US.  Ring uses corporate partnerships to influence the communications of the police departments it deals with.  This includes directing Department press releases, social media posts and comments on public posts.  Ring is a system that allows users to remotely monitor their doorsteps.  The accompanying app is called Neighbors by Ring, which allows users to view footage uploaded by other Ring users.  Thankfully, there is a watchdog who is keeping tabs on this unsettling development.  His name is Andrew Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing. He decries the dual loyalty developing at the hands of Ring and other companies.  And there is a test case.  Pittsburgh, Kansas, population 20000 has publicly announced a partnership with Ring.  Ring delivered a pitch to Pittsburgh, offering deals including discounts on devices and sending the police force a $200 device gratis for every 20 downloads of the Neighbors app.  Tit-for-tat is the name of the game.  Ring, in the relentless pursuit of profits, sent a press release to Pittsburgh police informing them that they reserved final approval of all communications to the public concerning Ring.  “Remember to make sure you highlight your Branch/Text link to try and have your civilians download the Neighbors by Ring App.” The kind of editing that Ring is inducing the police department of Pittsburgh to adopt is telling.  Wording was changed in police-Ring communications from “will be able to access videos submitted by subscribers of Ring” to say that departments will “join existing crime and safety conversations with local residents.”  Another change was from “police cannot access live stream video” to “police will not have access to cameras, live footage, or user data.”  Other techniques involve cross-promotion of alerts directly to the Amazon-owned Ring Facebook page, sharing images of people who had not yet been charged with a crime.  Ring liaisons also encourage police to comment more frequently on crime posts to encourage users to report suspicious activity in the neighborhood.  An attorney for the ACLU, Matt Cagle, voices a conclusion that should be obvious:  these kinds of practices “undermine public trust in law enforcement.”  He goes on the state that “It is shocking to see a private corporation dictating what public officials will say to community members about public safety issues.  Ring answers to Amazon shareholders, and police are supposed to answer to the public.  That is the core tension in these relationships.”

The Machine Always Wins

A new book by Richard Seymour.  I have posted a link in my section on website and article links to the article because I believe it is worth reading in its entirety.  Ah, the story that just won’t go away, modern technology as entrapment.  We in televisionland know that all these critiques don’t hardly make the slightest dent in the consciousness of Everycyborg.  Now Mr. Seymour has mounted a very cogent and telling case as to why this might be the case.  He observes, whether or not we consider ourselves addicted to social media and the smartphone, the system treats us as if we were.  “For those who are curating a self, social media notifications work as a form of clickbait…but it is not only addictive.  Whatever we write has to be calibrated for social approval.  Not only do we aim for conformity among our peers but, to an extent, we only pay attention to what our peers write insofar as it allows us to write something in reply, for the likes.  Perhaps this is what, among other things, gives rise to what is often derided as virtue signalling, not to mention the ferocious rows, overreactions, wounded amour-propre and grandstanding that often characterize social media communities.”

This is compelling stuff, but, but what is even more compelling and tragic is what Seymour describes as the ultimate horror of addition:  It kills.  Obviously it can kill outright through fatal overdose but what Seymour wishes us to focus on is its propensity to lead us to spiritual death.  “The drug addicts of Vancouver’s Hastings Corridor, described by Bruce Alexander–an emeritus professor of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who has studied addiction since the 70s–suffer symbolic death, “sodden misery”, before their biological death from overdose, suicide, Aids or hepatitis…  [c]ompulsive gamblers administer death in a symbolic sense, too, building up unpayable debts to the point where they lose everything they have lived for.  Social media addiction is rarely understood in this extreme light.  Nonetheless, users often describe it wrecking their careers and relationships…[t]he more these platforms wreck our lives, the better they are at functioning.  Yet we persist.  The platforms, like gambling machines are expert as disguising losses as wins.  We focus on the buzz of winning, not the cost of playing the game, and not the opportunities lost by playing.” And then Seymour delivers the punchline:   “The prevalence of addiction raises a troubling question:  is self-destruction, in some perverse way, what we are seeking?” One is of course reminded of Freud’s “death drive” at this juncture, and the crucial observation that this drive in classical psychoanalytic theory is unconscious.

Naturally Seymour, in his carefully mounted case, makes frequent recourse to the notion of variable reward, so chillingly documented by Natasha Dow Schüll in her signally important book Addiction by Design.  Seymour cites Jaron Lanier, who refers to the process of machine addiction as the employment of the “carrot and schtick.”  And he continues, “The Twittering Machine gives up both positive and negative reinforcements, and the unpredictable variation of feedback is what makes it so compulsive.  Like a mercurial lover, the machine keeps us needy and guessing; we can never know how to stay in its good graces.” The question which screams to be heard here is, what characteristics in the human personality have to be in place so that the hapless individual joins the hordes and puts up with all this?  Aren’t we once again speaking of a deep and abiding will to submission, even a will to self-extinguishment?

An Escalation in the Global Disinformation Wars

China, taking a page from the Russian playbook, has begun a disinformation war in the effort to blunt the Hong Kong protests, according to an article which appeared in today’s New York Times, “Facebook and Twitter Say China Is Spreading Disinformation in Hong Kong”, by Kate Conger.  Facebook and Twitter have taken down a number of sites they deem to be a part of this campaign.  From the NYT article: “The tumult has increasingly become one of positioning and public image.”  We all recall the events of three years ago when as it is noted in the Times article, “Russia pioneered a disinformation playbook when it used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media services to disseminate inflammatory messages intended to divide Americans in the 2016 presidential election.”  The unsettling thing is that this disinformation works so well.

What makes the mind so susceptible to such obvious manipulation?  It’s training, in part, I believe.  Watching dozens of autoplay videos in one session on youtube trains the mind to accept its incessant rhythms.  Machine repetition has created a new kind of groove, a groovy kind of love that turns into a rut after 22.8 repetitions.  What happens to the ability to think independently within such a repetition regime?

I wish to point to something that could be said to underlie these latest manifestations, to be put into the form of a question: What is the extent of the overall disinformation war?  We have certainly already expanded the potential for such psychomachias beyond anything that has heretofore existed.  To my mind this is potentially a totalizing phenomenon.  Boring deep into your mind, that they understand better than you do, utilizing the latest advances in the science of persuasion, the Combine will soon have the power to, for all intents and purposes, infinitely extend its management of everyman and everywoman.  The tumult will increasingly become one of positioning and public image.  30,000,000 likes can’t be wrong.  Don’t you see it gathering steam?

Facial Recognition Technology Implementation Advances

It is becoming increasingly clear that the emergent technological civilization has a problem with convergence.  Convergence is the bringing together of various technologies into a seamless whole. Only when this bringing together reaches a certain tipping point does the purpose of the convergence become clear.  Every indication brings the concerned citizen to the conclusion that we are approaching a point at which this convergence becomes a threat to individual autonomy.

Now there has been a revelation in the UK concerning facial recognition.  An investigation by the UK organization Big Brother Watch has some news for us.

The civil liberties campaign group has found major property developers, shopping centers, museums, conference centers and casinos using the technology in the UK.

Big Brother Watch’s investigation also found that the Millennium Point conference center in Birmingham uses facial recognition surveillance “at the request of law enforcement”.  In recent years, the area surrounding the conference center has been used for demonstrations by a disparate set of social groups:  trade unionists, football fans and anti-racism campaigners.

Their investigation uncovered the use of live facial recognition in Sheffield’s Meadowhall, one of the biggest shopping centers in the North of England, in secret police trials that took place last year. The trial could have scanned the faces of over 2 million visitors.

Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, said in a statement which appears on the BBW website:

There is an epidemic of facial recognition in the UK.

The collusion between police and private companies in building these surveillance nets around popular spaces is deeply disturbing. Facial recognition is the perfect tool of oppression and the widespread use we’ve found indicates we’re facing a privacy emergency.

We now know that many millions of innocent people will have had their faces scanned with this surveillance without knowing about it, whether by police or by private companies.

The idea of a British museum secretly scanning the faces of children visiting an exhibition on the first emperor of China is chilling. There is a dark irony that this authoritarian surveillance tool is rarely seen outside of China.

Facial recognition surveillance risks making privacy in Britain extinct.

Parliament must follow in the footsteps of legislators in the US and urgently ban this authoritarian surveillance from public spaces.

Beacons Are Watching You

Ah, the wonderful world of high-technology mechanics.  How things really work, is there a more engrossing and satisfying enterprise?  This time we are back to push notifications on your precious smartphone.  “As you approach the dairy aisle, you are sent a push notification in your phone:  ’10 percent off your favorite yogurt! Click here to redeem your coupon.’  You considered buying yogurt on your last trip to the store, but you decided against it.  How did your phone know?”  So begins an essay by Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, and host of the Tech Empire podcast.  Kwet continues:  The grocery store got your location data and paid a shadowy group of marketers to use that information to target you with ads.”  But how do they get such precise location data?  Cell phone towers or GPS can’t deliver.  It is a technology called Bluetooth beacons.  “Those beacons are small, unobtrusive electronic devices that are hidden throughout the grocery store; an app on your phone that communicates with them informed the company not only that you had entered the building, but that you had lingered for two minutes in front of the low-fat Chobanis”, whatever they are.  “Bluetooth beacons can track your location from a range of inches to about 50 meters [about 163 feet].”   The beacon signal is detected by the apps on the smartphone, which then use the phone’s OS to scan for nearby beacons.  If a beacon is detected, it notifies the app, even if the app is closed. Once the app recognizes the beacon, it sends data on the products you walked by or the departments you lingered in back to the company’s server.  “Foot traffic information can reveal personal details such as your income and exercise habits.  When paired with other information about you, companies can build a rich profile of who you are, where you are, and what you buy–all without your knowledge.”  And they are everywhere.  Kwet reports that they are in airports, malls, subways, buses, taxis, sporting arenas, gyms, hotels, hospitals, music festivals, cinemas, museums, and billboards.

It just gets more and more disturbing.  “In order to track you or trigger an action like a coupon or message to your phone, companies need you to install an app on your phone…but retailers want to make sure most of their customers are tracked–not just the ones that download their own particular app.  So a hidden industry of third-party location-marketing firms has proliferated…these companies take their beacon tracking code and bundle it into a toolkit developers can use.  The makers of many popular apps, such as those for news or weather updates, insert these toolkits into their apps.  They might be paid by the beacon companies or receive other benefits, like detailed reports on their users.  Location data companies collect additional data provided by apps.  A location company called Pulsate, for example, encourages app developers to pass them customer email addresses and names.” And the scope of this enterprise has reached astounding proportions.  A company called inMarket covers 38 percent of millennial moms and about one-quarter of all smartphones and tracks 50 million people each month.

And now we can talk about “mindset marketing”.  This science predicts when individuals are most receptive to ads, based on statistical probabilities calculated through millions of observations.  “Brands like Hellman’s, Heineken and Hillshire Farms have used these technologies to drive product campaigns.”

Kwet then goes into more detail about the mechanics of Bluetooth technology as it apples to tracking.  He reports that beacons are used with Google Ads services.  Google uses the beacons to send businesses’ visitors notifications that ask them to leave photos and reviews.  Investigators at a consumer advocacy company named Quartz found that Google Android can track you using Bluetooth even when you turn Bluetooth off in your phone.  Kwet points out at this juncture that although Apple has a less sinister reputation on customer surveillance than Google, Facebook et al, they were the ones that invented the Bluetooth system of commercial surveillance.

The issue of informed consent is then broached.  Companies claim that they are engaging in fair practices of informed consent in deploying this technology. But Kwet begs to differ.  “For informed consent using beacons, you have to first know that the beacons exist.  Then, you have to know which places use them, but venues and stores don’t put up signs or inform their customers.  You can download an app like Beacon Scanner and scan for beacons when you enter a store.  But even if you detect the beacons, you don’t know who is collecting the data.”  There is no transparency.    Kwet concludes with a takeaway:  “Most of our concerns about privacy are tied to the online world, and can feel theoretical at times.  But there is nothing theoretical about Bluetooth beacon technology that follows you into retail stores and tracks your movement down to the meter.”

WeChat and the Surveillance State

The beleaguered Western mind has been reduced to the flimsiest rationalizations for his or her way of life as a fully-fledged member of the technological society:  We are not China.  One says to oneself, it’s true they have what is called a surveillance state.  But the West has safeguards in place to prevent that kind of scenario from developing here, or at least prevent the worst excesses from taking root, says this beleaguered mind to itself.  Stephen McDonnell’s piece in the BBC dated 7 June 2019, “China Social Media:  WeChat and the Surveillance State” may give even the most sanguine Westerner pause.  Looking at the particulars of this article, it is very easy to see the up-to-now indistinct features of the coming revolution in social control, which of course has a worldwide scope, coming into focus.  For those of you that have not kept up these last centuries, I mean 7 years, WeChat is a combination of Facebook, Apple Pay, Twitter, Tinder and Google Maps all rolled into one, that is based in and serves the population of China, mainly.  The dutiful student of our civilization’s rapidly evolving technological characteristics may have even heard of the phenomenon of convergence to describe the integration of elements in the technological society.  WeChat has a billion users.  Of course it is an arm of the governmental apparatus.

McDonnell was trying to say something about the Tiananmen Massacre on WeChat, not exactly a prudent thing to do.  So he got locked out of WeChat.  So what, one might ask.  But in China, all things revolve around WeChat.  According to McDonnell:  “In China pretty much everyone has WeChat.  I don’t know a single person without it.  Developed by tech giant Tencent it is an incredible app.  It’s convenient.  It works.  It’s fun…[w]hen you meet somebody in a work context they don’t give you a name card any more, they share their WeChat; if you play for a football team training details are on WeChat; children’s school arrangements, WeChat; Tinder-style dates, WeChat; movie tickets, WeChat; news stream, WeChat; restaurant locations, WeChat; paying for everything from a bowl of noodles to clothes to a dining room table, WeChat.  People wouldn’t be able to speak to their friends or family without it. So the censors who can lock you out of WeChat hold real power over you.

McDonnell was temporarily locked out of WeChat for posting pictures of Tiananmen and answering a few questions posed by interested messagers.   To get back in, he had to follow a series of steps.  WeChat admin sent this message to him:  “Your login has been declined due to account exceptions. Try to log in again and proceed as instructed.” When McDonnell tried to log back in, he was greeted with this message: “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumors and has been temporarily blocked.”

As so McDonnell had to serve a one-day penalty of being banished from the promised land.  Lifting the ban required the following steps:  Admitting to spreading “malicious rumors”.  (click agree)  McDonnell clicked agree. Then a new message:  “Faceprint is required for security purposes.”  McDonnell:  “I was instructed to hold my phone up–to ‘face front camera straight on’–looking directly at the image of a human head.  Then told to ‘Read numbers aloud in Mandarin Chinese’.  My voice was captured by the App at the same time it scanned my face.  Afterwards a big green tick:  ‘Approved'”.

San Francisco has banned facial recognition technology.   But they haven’t banned Facebook.  Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook according to the WeChat model.  One by one, the dominoes fall.  It’s coming into focus now.  Can’t you see it?  This phenomenon has flourished in a society which places the collective over the individual, and has for centuries.  But who could convincingly argue that ours is not evolving in that direction?  And it won’t take centuries to get to where China is.

The Smartphone as a Pacifier and Its Consequences

Report on a paper read at CHI 2019, conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, May 4-9, 2019

Little baby needs her rubber nipple? OK, here you go, snookums.  One researcher actually had the nerve to maintain that it might be a positive thing for an adult human being to rely on a pacifier.   I call out such an individual by name:  Shiri Melumad, who published a paper called “The Distinct Psychology of Cell Phone Usage” in 2017.  It is listed in the bibliography of the paper I am now discussing.  While Sarah Diefenbach’s and Kim Borrmann’s paper is not uniformly critical of the use of the smartphone, it does identify some rather troubling aspects of its use.  “With its handiness and multifunctionality the smartphone has become the ‘consumer’s constant companion’ and is present across all domains of life:  work, relationships, and solitude…HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] research found positive correlations between intensity of smartphone use and personality traits such as the capacity for solitude, need to belong and proneness to boredom…Such findings suggest that smartphone usage may seem more or less attractive depending on one’s personality structure [italics mine–dw].  More specifically, the smartphone may fulfill psychological needs related to particular personality traits whereby the utilization of of the smartphone for need fulfillment could also be an unconscious process.”  Diefenbach and Borrman aver that smartphone use runs under the radar for most people.  It is a “pocket slot machine” where the variable rewards structure of the smartphone leads to addiction behaviors not unlike those found in the hard-core gamblers of Las Vegas.  But all this has been established by other researchers, most notably perhaps by Natasha Dow Schüll in her chilling exposé Addiction by Design of 2012, which I have discussed in these pages.  Diefenbach and Borrmann end this section of the paper by saying that “All these findings underline the pervasive effects of the smartphone in daily life and the immense relevance of related psychological functions.”

Then there is more detailed discussion of the drawbacks of cellphone use:  that it negatively impacts academic performance, that “the mere presence of the smartphone reduces cognitive capacity, especially for those with a higher dependence on the phone…[r]egarding interpersonal relationships, Przybylski and Weinstein showed that the mere presence of the smartphone in social situations reduced the perceived interpersonal closeness, connection, and quality of the face-to-face conversation.”  It’s just heartbreaking as Diefenbach and Borrmann continue. “Another set of studies hints at contradictions between attitude and smartphone behavior.  For example, a survey by Drago found that 85% agreed [with] the statement that present technology impairs interpersonal communication.  Nevertheless, 62% were observed using either smartphones, tablets or laptops during conversations.”  Diefenbach and Borrmann report that despite warnings about the smartphone’s impact on social situations, the overall smartphone usage time continued to rise. All these conclusions are backed with solid research. The reference pages for this article contain 111 citations.  At this point the authors arrive at the main subject of the study, which is the way people use their smartphones in what the authors call “alone time”: “In order to fill this gap, the present research focuses on the specific situation of smartphone usage in moments of solitude, its determinants, and consequences…]t]his study adds to the HCI literature by exploring the consequences of smartphone usage on self-reflection and self-insight.” Its conclusions on this vitally important topic are not reassuring. In the section titled “Personality factors contributing to negative emotions during alone time”, the phenomenon of variable perception of the attractiveness of smartphone usage is explored in depth.  The focus, then is on individual differences in the experience of solitude.  According to the authors, current research demonstrates a strong correlation between positive solitude and increased psychological well-being.  Not surprisingly, the authors found that those with a a lower capacity for the positive experience of solitude relied on their smartphones more than those who have a higher capacity.  Diefenbach and Borrmann continue by citing other important parameters which determine emotional-well-being or the lack thereof, the need to belong and proneness to boredom.  They cite the literature which indicates that “digitalization in general drives our desire for continuous stimulation and stops us from exploring complex thoughts and questions that might not lead to instant rewards.”  The authors refer to a disconnect between the difficult work of self-reflection and the ease with which results are obtained via the smartphone.  “This perspective highlights that the process of self-reflection can be frustrating, which could make the instant gratifications of a mobile device appear even more tempting.”  Study results confirmed that “the empirical data thus supported the assumption that personality traits leading to negative emotions in moments of alone time are positively associated with smartphone usage in moments of alone time and vice versa…the present study found that people with less capacity for solitude, higher need to belong, and higher proneness to boredom also report more frequent smartphone usage during alone time.” The study also found meaningful distinction between self-reflection and self-insight.  Self-reflection did occur to a higher degree than expected but self-insight remained elusive. “While our research did not reveal an association between self-reflection and smartphone usage in alone time, the expected negative association between smartphone usage in alone time and self-insight was significant. One possible interpretation is that those who engage in self-reflective processes while being on the phone get less out of it.  For example, the outcomes of self-reflection while being on the phone are potentially more superficial, because of interruptions like new messages that disturb thought streams or biased self-perceptions through social media.”

It’s hard to avoid making the inference that the empirical data demonstrates that smartphone use is further eroding the capacity for self-insight, an already scarce commodity.  Those with personality structures that have a high degree of the need to belong, low capacity for the positive experience of solitude, and high inclination toward the proneness to boredom are those with the highest smartphone usage.  This arguably militates against efficacious self-examination, and this vitally important category of human experience is thus denigrated.